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(Inio Music As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/22/2003)
Since the mid 1990s, jam bands have really come into their own. Thanks to a combination of the rediscovery of the Grateful Dead by a younger generation just before Jerry Garcia's passing, and the surprising popularity of Phish, who seemed to inherit a fair portion of the Dead's audience, rock groups known for their extended instrumental improvisations have become a genre unto themselves, with jam band festivals and emerging groups appearing all over the country. Because being a jam band is relatively easy in principle, the ranks of jam bands are filled with some second-rate groups who can get up on stage and noodle away at their instruments, which may satisfy audiences who listen with, let say, some chemical modification. But the jam band field has also attracted groups such as the String Cheese Incident that demonstrate outstanding musicianship, often considerably better than the groups that started doing that kind of thing in the 1960s.
This week we have a new recording by a now venerable jam and fusion band who also demonstrate first-rate musicianship, and worthwhile original material that puts them in the top rank of the genre. But interestingly it's also their first new release in nine years. The group calls themselves the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and their new CD is yclept The Calling.
The Aquarium Rescue Unit got its start in the early 1990s in Atlanta, when the group backed up the legendarily quirky vocalist and songwriter Col. Bruce Hampton, whose own career goes back to the 1960s group the Hampton Grease Band. Hampton made two albums with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a band named by drawing words from a hat. After Hampton moved on to other collaborations, the Aquarium Rescue Unit enlisted vocalist Paul Henson, who is much more the classic rock vocalist in the Paul Rodgers/Bad Company tradition than Hampton , and Henson also wrote lyrics that were a lot less laden with non-sequitors. The group released an EP in 1993 and a full-length CD called In a Perfect World the following year. After a fair amount of touring, the band went into hiatus while its principal members were recruited for various projects. Guitar whiz Jimmy Herring spent some time as a member of the Allman Brothers, and was also part of an all-star jam band in 2000 called Frogwings, which also included Butch Trucks of the Allmans. Herring also played with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's band. Further cementing the connection between the Allman Brothers Band and the Aquarium Rescue Unit is bassist Oteil Burbridge who plays with both groups.
The remaining members of the Aquarium rescue Unit are Otiel's brother Kofi Burbridge on keyboards and woodwinds -- he was also a part of Frogwings -- and drummer Sean O'Rourke, who is Aquarium's newest member.
Nine years is a long time between albums, especially considering that the last time there was an Aquarium Rescue Unit release, there was not much of a jam band scene beyond the veteran groups like the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia was still alive at the time. In the interim, if anything, Aquarium has gotten a little jazzier, with more harmonically complex material, and Herring playing a bit more in the classic fusion style. Henson's lyrics have also become stronger, with the kind of literacy of a singer-songwriter, something rare in the jam band field. The result is an excellent more-than-hour-long CD which runs from semi-acoustic to very electric, and with most of the music having a rhythmically infectious funky beat.
On The Calling the band continues to shows its Southern rock roots throughout, perhaps not surprisingly, given the presence of two Allman Brothers Band members. Often, the Aquarium Rescue Unit can evoke the jazzy-Southern-fried blend that marked the Dixie Dregs. And there are some occasional hints of British art rock reminiscent of the sound of bands like Gentle Giant and Hatfield & the North.
The CD begins with one of its more energetic tracks that typifies the funky-rocky-fusion sound of the CD. Hurt No More has lyrics dedicated to Susan O'Rourke, presumably related to drummer Sean O'Rourke. The oblique lyrics make a reference to cancer and suffering. <<>>
More of the singer-songwriter facet of vocalist and lyricist Paul Henson comes out on the following piece, the title track The Calling, with some acoustic instrumentation, along with first-rate guitar work by Herring. <<>>
For me, one of the highlights is the track called Nice. It's got interesting lyrics and a musical setting that jumps between an almost jazzy swing and angular art rock moments in the Gentle Giant tradition. <<>>
While most of the lyrics are written by Henson, the group does one piece with words by their old collaborator Bruce Hampton. No Egos also features some musical guests including horns and backing vocalists. It's another strong track. <<>>
A group like this would be remiss in not including some instrumentals. The Calling has two pieces sans vocals. Ride by Kofi Burbridge is a good straight jazz-rock fusion piece with Herring stating the theme on acoustic guitar <<>> before solo opportunities for most of the band, including the composer on flute. <<>>
There are hints at another musically expansive Southern group, that of Bruce Hornsby, on the Aquarium Rescue Unit's King in the Making. The prominence of Kofi Burbridge's acoustic piano and the somewhat different direction of the lyrics allows the group to show a alternate musical facet. <<>>
The Aquarium Rescue Unit's instrumental sound is rather retro in the way they eschew synthesizers and insist on real drums. They also evoke an earlier era in the lyrics to Through the Fire, with their Woodstock-era philosophizing on the state of the world. <<>>
While most of the music on this CD is more structured than one is likely to hear from a jam band on stage, they do include one totally improvised instrumental track called Usaidtheredbefish, which ends The Calling on a somewhat anarchic note, while the solos can again hint at old British art rock. <<>>
While there is no shortage of jam bands, much rarer is the group that shows solid musicianship and creative compositions. The Aquarium Rescue Unit, after nine years of recording inactivity, takes their place among the best in the genre. The band's website says that The Calling was recorded some time ago, and only now just being released. Having them back in action is a pleasant surprise, with the individual members involved with high-profile gigs like playing with the Allman Brothers Band and members of the Grateful Dead. With the re-emergence of The A-R-U we have the return of an outstanding group who last appeared before there was much of a contemporary jam band scene. Their musicianship is beyond reproach and the jazz-fusion influence gives this CD added artistic heft.
Sonically, we'll give the recording close to an "A." Everything is captured well with decent clarity, and the dynamic range, the differences between soft and loud, is about as good as can be expected in these days when sonic subtlety has become an endangered species.
The Aquarium Rescue Unit, when they first emerged more than a decade ago, might have been considered either ahead of their time or something of a throwback to the jazz-rock fusion, art rock and Southern rock scenes. Now with the jam band scene in full swing and the stellar resumés of the A-R-U's members, the band's new CD should find a ready audience among those who have an opportunity to hear this independent release.
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